Politics can be treated as a science, but not every truth can be known directly. Instead, we must mix political science and political philosophy to better create political theories that work in practice.
Can Politics Be a Science? A Justification for Political Science
Politics can be treated as a science (political science), but it must always seek data that can be confirmed by our senses (empirical evidence). The idea “that politics can be a science” can be gleaned from many sources: Greeks like Aristotle, Romans like Livy, early European Republics, Monarchies, early philosophers like Machiavelli and Hobbes, and later philosophers like Hume and Montesquieu. Acceptance of political science in the United States began with figures like Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Carnegie.
Below we look at the difference between political philosophy and political science or social science to see their relationship.
Political Science and Realism Vs. Political Philosophy and Idealism
Like economics, psychology, and the other social sciences, politics can be treated as either a science (political science) or a philosophy (political philosophy). When treated as a science it requires a realist-minded empirical approach, when treated as a philosophy there is more room to factor in idealism, morality, ethics, and other more ethereal concepts.
Generally we can say policy making falls in the science category, its ethical and moral aspects the philosophy category, and the group dynamics of politics somewhere in between (see the difference between policy and politics).
We can argue that, not only can we cross political forks, but that politics is best approached from the fusing of political science and philosophy.
Before we offer insight into how and why we can reduce many aspects of politics to a science, and how that pairs with political philosophy, let’s clearly define a few related terms:
- What is Political Science? Political science is the systematic study of government and politics; it is the science of politics be it ideas, diplomacy, influence, law, taxes, forms of government, etc. It’s a social science, like economics, law, or psychology. All the social sciences are closely related, as they all study naturally occurring social systems (as opposed to physical systems).
- What is Policy? Policy is the rules that politics creates. Policy analysis is more clearly a logical science than other aspects of statesmanship.
- What is Political Philosophy? It is the philosophy of political systems. It can be rooted in empirical data or pure reason, philosophy can be confirmed by science, but science never confirmed by philosophy.
- What is Political Theory? It is a theory born from political philosophy and political science.
Politics May be Reduced to a Science
In summary, the answer is:
Yes, politics can be reduced to a science, but only when that science is rooted in a realist and empirical foundation. We cannot use pure reason to create a political science directly, but we can (in the traditional of the social sciences) consider historical records, measure past, and current outcomes, and test for real empirical data, and then create a social science from this.
We can form our theories using pure reason and metaphysics, We can take an idealistic approach similarly to the way in which a physicist entertains theoretical physics or how Jung studied mythology. However, we must always base our science itself on empirical data held up to the scientific method. We must test our theories, especially those born of pure reason.
Social systems are complex, so unlike with mathematics or physics, effects are almost always complex and rarely fully predictable. Thus we also must take our political science with a grain of salt, as there is always room for error (again, just like economics, psychology, or law). A good scientist knows the point of science is to prove theories wrong, not design experiments to prove theories right on principle, but it is worth stating here.
A liberal free republic might sound good on paper, but checks and balances assure it, and while one person’s theory may sound great, we shouldn’t approach politics with too much zeal, as a little human action in politics can have big consequences.PHILOSOPHY – Epistemology: Hume’s Skepticism and Induction, Part 1 [HD].
Although it is hardly a proof of the merits of politic science, the sentiment of this excerpt from Hume’s “That Politics can be a Science” offers insight into the subject:
“It is true; those who maintain, that the goodness of all government consists in the goodness of the administration, may cite many particular instances in history, where the very same government, in different hands, has varied suddenly into the two opposite extremes of good and bad…. So great is the force of laws, and of particular forms of government, and so little dependence have they on the humours and tempers of men [whims and opinions], that consequences almost as general and certain may sometimes be deduced from them, as any which the mathematical sciences afford us…. It may therefore be pronounced as an universal axiom in politics, That an hereditary prince, a nobility without vassals, and a people voting by their representatives, form the best MONARCHY, ARISTOCRACY, and DEMOCRACY. But in order to prove more fully, that politics admit of general truths, which are invariable by the humour or education either of subject or sovereign, it may not be amiss to observe some other principles of this science, which may seem to deserve that character…. I would not be understood to mean, that public affairs deserve no care and attention at all. Would men be moderate and consistent, their claims might be admitted; at least might be examined. The country-party might still assert, that our constitution, though excellent, will admit of mal-administration to a certain degree; and therefore, if the minister be bad, it is proper to oppose him with a suitable degree of zeal. And, on the other hand, the court-party may be allowed, upon the supposition that the minister were good, to defend, and with some zeal too, his administration. I would only persuade men not to contend, as if they were fighting pro aris & focis, and change a good constitution into a bad one, by the violence of their factions.” – David Hume
The Marriage of the Social Sciences
Economics, psychology, law, and politics are all interlinked. These are naturally occurring social systems, and they are the foundation of society. Classism, economies, capital, the division of labor, welfare, markets, etc. are all linked to the law, all linked to psychology, and all linked to politics.
These interrelated systems not only can be considered, from a scientific or philosophical standpoint (especially in terms of ethics and morals), they must be.
It is not an either/or choice; rather it is the combining of these two systems which gives us the best answer. Just as Woodrow Wilson knew and just as he put in action with his New Freedom plan.
We cannot separate the social sciences, as much as we can separate liberty, equality, justice, and right from government and law.American Presidents – Woodrow Wilson 28th US President.
A Brief History of Social Science
Of course, we are only restating what has long been known. Certainly, it was known to the settlers of the Tigris and Euphrates in 5,000’s BC when they formed the early cities.
We know for certain it was known by the Athenians and Romans in the West, and even the Chinese in the east when they broke their socioeconomics politics into two types: the realist (Legalism) and the idealist (Confucianism and Taoism).Legalism. As you can imagine, a pure realist philosophy presents some sticking points.
The Chinese forms are directly analogous to Aristotle’s realism and Plato’s Idealism, really not so different from the split between aristocrats and populists in the Roman Republic, or even the root split between modern political parties.
Political Science can Consider Political Philosophy
- Political philosophy is always an idealist, and political science is always a realist.
- Political science can consider political philosophy, but must always be confirmed by the empirical and means tested.
- Meanwhile, political philosophy can consider political science, but can rely on pure rationalism and doesn’t require empirical evidence.
Thus, as long as we don’t confuse political philosophy with political science, and we don’t confuse social science with the easier-to-predict-in-action natural science, then we can say “politics may be reduced to science.”
Below is a series of videos that are meant to showcase the importance of political science and philosophy (and to highlight the general dichotomies within them). See a closely related discussion on the social contract.POLITICAL THEORY – Niccolò Machiavelli. POLITICAL THEORY – John Locke. HISTORY OF IDEAS – Capitalism. How to Improve Capitalism. POLITICAL THEORY – Karl Marx. POLITICAL THEORY – Friedrich Hayek.